Who is the Best Pitcher of All-Time?

December 17, 2007 at 10:49 pm 24 comments

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Major League baseball is full of arguments. One of the most heated arguments I’ve heard is who the best pitcher of all-time is. We tend to believe our era is the best. How do we figure who is right and who is wrong? It’s almost impossible to do. I am going to take an unbiased stance and statistically try to prove who the best pitcher of all-time is by comparing the top 5 pitchers that are argued most often.

I will use a group of stats that I believe to be the most important ones a pitcher can compile that proves his worth as a pitcher. Those stats are: ERA+ (ERA versus the league average or average amount of runs given up per nine innings pitched divided into the league average ERA for that pitcher’s career), K/9 (average number of strikeouts per nine innings pitched), winning percentage (wins divided by total number of decisions), WHIP (amount of walks and hits given up per innings; basically the amount of base runners allowed in a given inning pitched), K/BB rate (ratio of strikeouts to walks), innings pitched, and H/9 (amount of hits allowed per 9 innings pitched). I will also show the awards each pitcher has won. Wins aren’t totally controlled by the pitcher so they will not be part of the equation in justifying which pitcher is better. Wins don’t give the total picture of how well a pitcher performs. The pitcher may pitch in a 1-0 game and get the loss. Getting the loss and not the win says he pitched poorly which is far from the truth. A pitcher may also get the win in a 9-8 victory where he pitched poorly but the opposing pitcher pitched even worse. Also, a relief pitcher can come in when the starting pitcher left the game with the win in his hands and the relief pitcher can blow the lead giving the starting pitcher a no-decision.

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Christy Mathewson – Matthewson is regarded by many as one of the best pitchers that ever played the game. Even with such high regard he is underrated. He places 5th all-time in WHIP with a 1.059. His 4780.7 innings pitched is 19th all-time. His .6650 winning percentage is tied for 17th all-time. His 2.96 K/BB rate is good for a tie for 31st. His ERA+ is 135, that is tied for 21st all-time. His 7.94 H/9 is 100th all-time. The only knock on him is his K/9 rate of 4.71, good for only 517th all-time. He won two triple crowns and finished 2nd, 4th, 12th, and 16th in MVP voting in his career.

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Walter Johnson – According to Forbes.com Johnson “still stands as the greatest based on his dominance and longevity”. Hardballtimes.com listed Johnson as the best pitcher to ever play the game and stated “he was simply awesome…”. He pitched from 1907-1927 and is 2nd on the all-time wins list which usually garners the bulk of the argument given by historians and others who argue his worth, but you know how I feel about trusting wins to give the argument. So here are Johnson’s numbers: His ERA+ is an amazing 1.47, good for 3rd on the all-time list. His WHIP is 1.061, good for 6th on the all-time list. His K/BB rate is 2.570, good for a tie for 62nd on the all-time list. His winning percentage is .599, good for a tie for 113th on the all-time list. His K/9 rate is 5.339, good for 362nd on the all-time list. His H/9 rate is 7.476, good for a tie for 33rd on the all-time list. Johnson also did this over the 3rd most innings pitched in history with 5914.7. Johnson won the MVP award twice and finished in the top 20 four other times. He also won the pitching Triple Crown (led the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts) three times. He never won a Cy Young Award though, but that is because the award wasn’t made yet due to the fact that Cy Young was still pitching. This brings me to my next pitcher.

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Cy Young – Let me start by saying that there is a major award named after this guy. He pitched from 1890-1911 and is the all-time leader in wins, innings pitched, games started, batters faced, and complete games. But, people don’t tend to point out that he has the most losses of all-time, the most hits allowed, and the most earned runs allowed. But most or all of those stats are because he pitched more than anyone in the history of the game. Here are the numbers for Cy Young: His ERA+ is 1.387, good for 18th on the all-time list. His WHIP is 1.130, good for 35th on the all-time list. His K/BB rate is 2.600, good for a tie for 126th on the all-time list. His winning percentage is .618, good for a tie for 71st on the all-time list. His K/9 rate is 3.430, good for 831st on the all-time list. His H/9 rate is 8.679, good for 411th on the all-time list. Young did this over the most innings pitched in history with 7354.7. Young won the pitching Triple Crown once. He never won his own award because it obviously wasn’t created yet. Next on this list is the man who has won more of his awards than anyone else in history, Roger Clemens.

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Roger Clemens – Also known as “The Rocket”, Clemens is still considered active because he hasn’t filed for retirement yet but the 2007 season is most likely his last. Clemens is pitched from 1984-2007. Nevermind the steroid allegations, he is the ultimate combination of the modern pitcher and the turn of the century pitcher. He is considered by Forbes.com to be “…not merely the dominant pitcher of his era. He’s the best pitcher of the past 80 years, second only to old fireballer Walter “Big Train” Johnson…” Hardballtimes.com considers Clemens to be the 3rd best pitcher of all-time. Here are his numbers: His ERA+ is an amazing 1.43, good for a tie for 9th on the all-time list. His WHIP is 1.1725, good for 86th on the all-time list. His K/BB rate is 2.960, good for a tie for a tie for 31st on the all-time list. His winning percentage is .6580, good for a tie for 21st on the all-time list. His K/9 rate is 8.552, good for 14th on the all-time list. His H/9 rate is 7.661, good for 44th on the all-time list. Clemens did this over the 15th most innings pitched in history with 4916.7. Clemens has won a record 7 Cy Young Awards, finishing in the top six on five other occasions. He’s won the pitching Triple Crown twice and he’s won the MVP once, finishing in the top 20 eight other times. Next on the list is considered by most Baby Boomers as the best pitcher of all-time, Sandy Koufax.

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Sandy Koufax – Some would discard him right away saying he ended his career too short. Not I. He had to retire at the age of 30, right in his prime, due to arthritis in his pitching shoulder. The doctors told him he had the choice of pitching another 3 years but never being able to pick up his kid with his left arm. He chose health and family over possible immortalization as the best pitcher to ever play the game. He pitched form 1955-1966. Here are his numbers: His ERA+ is 1.31, good for a tie for 32nd on the all-time list. His WHIP is 1.1061, good for 22nd on the all-time list. His K/BB rate is 2.930, good for a tie for 34th on the all-time list. His winning percentage is .6550, good for a tie for 24th on the all-time list. His K/9 rate is 9.278, good for 6th on the all-time list. His H/9 rate is 6.792, good for 2nd all-time. Koufax did this over the 278th most innings pitched in history with 2324.3. Koufax won the pitching Triple Crown three times. He won the MVP once, finishing 2nd twice and in the top 20 two other times. He also won the Cy Young Award three times, finishing 3rd one other time. Koufax flat out dominated while he pitched, but no one dominated the way the next pitcher on the list has.

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Pedro Martinez – Pedro began his career in 1992 and he is still active in 2007 and planning on pitching at least one more season. Pedro Martinez epitomizes the word dominance in my opinion but some historians will also discard him like Koufax, claiming he doesn’t have enough innings or even wins. Others will say he had one of the most dominate primes but will still put him out of their top 30 all-time pitchers like Hardballtimes.com did. Still, others will look at his accomplishments and reward him with a top 10 spot like Forbes.com did, placing him at number eight on their list due to his dominance form 1997-2002 and that his 2.20 earned run average during that “hitter-friendly era” was less than half the league average. I’ll let the numbers speak for him. His ERA+ is an amazing 1.61, good for 1st on the all-time list and 0.13 more than the 2nd place pitcher. That 0.13 is important because nowhere in the top 1000 are two places separated by even 0.03 and only twice by 0.02 and he sits 0.13 ahead of the 2nd best of all-time. His WHIP is 1.030, good for 3rd on the all-time list. His K/BB rate is 4.280, good for a tie for 3rd on the all-time list. His winning percentage is .6920, good for 3rd on the all-time list. His K/9 rate is 10.199, good for 3rd on the all-time list. His H/9 rate is 6.887, good for 5th on the all-time list. Pedro did this over the 189th most innings pitched in history with 2673.7. Pedro won the pitching Triple Crown once. Pedro finished in the top 20 in MVP voting four times, once as high as 2nd and once 5th. He has also won three Cy Young Awards and finished 2nd twice, 3rd once, and 4th once.

Taking all these stats into consideration it is a close call between Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens. Depending on what you consider more valuable (longevity or pure dominance) you can make your case for either. I tend to give a little more importance to dominance and according to the stats presented so it is clear that Pedro Martinez is the greatest pitcher that ever played the game.

-Jonathan C. Mitchell

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24 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joi  |  December 17, 2007 at 11:19 pm

    good article here! and despite the mitchell report, i’ll give the award to Clemens. the pure power, and the 7 Cy Youngs do it for me.

    Reply
  • 2. Rachel  |  December 17, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    Nolan Ryan
    Randy Johnson
    Warren Spahn
    Cory Lydle
    Sand Koufax
    Christy Matthewson
    Walter Johnson

    those guys would hafta be my favs.

    Reply
  • 3. Jonathan C. Mitchell  |  December 17, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    Clemens really finished a close 2nd when I ran a formula compiling all the stats. He is a great pitcher with or without steroids. Steroids don’t add more drop to a splitter or help you hit the corner with your fastball for 23 seasons.

    Reply
  • 4. Jonathan C. Mitchell  |  December 17, 2007 at 11:24 pm

    Rachel – Randy Johnson and some of those you named just missed making this list. This isn’t my list of favorite pitchers it’s just a list of some of the most debated pitchers and the one who came out to be the best after I ran the numbers. My personal favorites are:

    Tom Glavine
    Greg Maddux
    John Smoltz
    Scott Kazmir
    Sandy Koufax
    Pedro Martinez
    Bob Gibson
    Jake Peavy

    Reply
  • 5. MikeMcGinnis  |  December 17, 2007 at 11:46 pm

    yes, warren spahn is an absolute must for this list. you know i would ahve to include gibby (bob gibson) as well he’s one of my all-time favourite pitchers.

    i think another thing would be to see if you had to win a game 7 who would you pick out of the all-time pitchers. my top 3 would be:

    1. sandy koufax

    2. bob gibson

    3. whitey ford (a vastly overlooked big game pitcher)

    the guy i would least want is roger clemens. he’s not a big game pitcher in my mind. look at his last few must win playoff games they aren’t good at all.

    Reply
  • 6. Jonathan C. Mitchell  |  December 17, 2007 at 11:55 pm

    Good call. My game 7 would look like this:

    1. Pedro Martinez
    2. Sandy Koufax
    3. Bob Gibson
    4. John Smoltz

    Reply
  • 7. Kifyttrium.Com » Who is the Best Pitcher of All-Time?  |  December 18, 2007 at 1:59 am

    […] wrote an interesting post today on Who is the Best Pitcher of All-Time?Here’s a quick […]

    Reply
  • 8. Erik  |  December 18, 2007 at 2:53 am

    Great Article.

    I would say that list of players mentioned in the article itself are pretty accurate.

    Some of my favorite pitchers that didn’t make the list are (not in any order):

    Tom Seaver
    Jake Peavy
    Roy Oswalt
    Roy Holliday
    Scott Kazmir
    Bob Gibson
    JR Richards that is right JR the man had an explosive fastball, great curve too bad he had cancer and his career ended quickly.
    Hoyt Wilhelm
    Jim Palmer
    Greg Maddux
    and the list goes on.

    But the best has still got to be Walter Johnson.

    Reply
  • 9. dffd  |  December 18, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    where would clemens rank prior to 1997?

    Reply
  • 10. Jonathan C. Mitchell  |  December 18, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    I would have to run the numbers first. I’m sure his numbers would still be very good.

    Reply
  • 11. Z  |  December 19, 2007 at 12:25 am

    Good, well written article. Not too many people understand the concept of ERA+ (at least the casual baseball fan), and I was actually pleased to see someone use it with great logic and understanding, as was done with all the stats. However, I will disagree on the usage of winning percentage, however. You could have a good pitcher stuck on a team with a poor offense for a few years where he goes near .500 because of poor run support (Scott Kazmir). I don’t believe there is one pitcher who is truly “the best”. However, I will say there are two best pitchers because of the different eras in baseball. And for these eras, I will go with Walter Johnson and Pedro Martinez. If Roidger…er, excuse me, Rodger Clemens wasn’t a fraud, I would say him because he dominated for a longer period of time than Pedro, but he cheated to do it.

    Reply
  • 12. Jonathan C. Mitchell  |  December 19, 2007 at 7:54 am

    Thanks Z. I agree about winning percentage to an extent. I had to include wins somehow and total wins just doesn’t cut it. Matt Cain fell into the winning percentage problem last season with like a 7-16 record. AWFUL! But he pitched like a 15-9 record or better. I would also agree that Pedro and Walter Johnson are probably the bests of each era with Roger Clemens, steroids or not, the best longevity pitcher. Thanks a lot for your response, I’m glad there is someone who relaizes the importance of ERA+ out there. To me it is the most important stat for a pitcher’s value.

    Reply
  • 13. Paul  |  December 19, 2007 at 8:56 am

    No one has mentioned Grover Cleveland (Pete) Alexander!!!

    3rd in all time wins with 373, 2.56 career ERA, 2198 K’s and a lifetime 1.21 WHIP, 5190IP, 90 shutouts, plus he missed time for being in the war.

    How could he be left off!?!?

    Reply
  • 14. Jonathan C. Mitchell  |  December 19, 2007 at 11:11 am

    Good call on Alexander. He also just missed my rankings. He is legitimately a top 15 candidate though, possibly top 10.

    Reply
  • 15. Z  |  December 19, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Well, ERA+ is an important stat. However, it’s usually too confusing for the more “casual” baseball fan. I usually base a starter off of ERA, WHIP, and IP and a reliever off of WHIP and K/BB. ERA for a reliever/closer is a pointless stat because one rough outing can completely wreck a pitcher’s ERA. I think those stats are easier to comprehend and are still good ones for judgement. Another stat I like is VORP. You can have fun with that one.

    Reply
  • 16. Jonathan C. Mitchell  |  December 20, 2007 at 8:50 am

    I also like VORP but I think it’s a little flawed.

    Reply
  • 17. Johnluke Chaparro  |  December 21, 2007 at 10:24 pm

    Pedro Martinez
    Bob Gibson
    Tom Seaver
    Nolan Ryan
    Whitey Ford
    Sandy Koufax
    Tom Glavine
    Greg Maddux
    Randy Johnson

    Reply
  • 18. Denver Browns Baseball  |  December 26, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    despite all the Mitchell crap…I am going with Clemens…he has stayed strong and consistent for 20 + seasons and has been dominant throughout…he gets it done…MUCH LOVE D-BROWNS

    Reply
  • 19. Jonathan C. Mitchell  |  December 26, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    Clemens is easily in my top 3, no doubt! He would’ve won 800 games if he pitched when Cy Young did.

    Reply
  • 20. Danno  |  January 2, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    Tom Seaver won many many games for very very bad Met teams. It’s scary to think what he could have done playing for a contender every year. Seaver was perhaps the smartest pitcher to play the game as well. Just my two cents…

    Reply
  • 21. Jonathan C. Mitchell  |  January 3, 2008 at 7:59 am

    Seaver was a very smart pitcher. He and Steve Carlton played for some bad teams. I think Greg Maddux has to be the smartest pitcher to play the game though. He is unbelieveable!

    Reply
  • 22. 3GUYSANDASPORTSPAGE.COM  |  February 15, 2008 at 9:46 am

    […] isn’t lying kids! He dominated an era ruled by hitters and hitting records (click here for the article on best pitchers of all-time) and he isn’t ashamed of how he did it and how […]

    Reply
  • 23. Bryan  |  June 15, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    So I’m four years late in getting to this, but I have a few things to add. This question can’t be answered until we establish two preferences: more dominant peak vs. total career value, and dominance of the pitcher’s era or potential ability to dominate any era.

    Walter Johnson dominated his era over the long term like no one ever has, before or since, but we can’t know how effective he could have been in Koufax’s or Clemens’s era. I agree that, if we assume baseball has evolved through the decades, it comes down to Pedro’s peak vs. Clemens’s total value.

    I’m surprised not to see Lefty Grove, possibly the second-most dominant pitcher ever, not among your choices or the commenters’. I’m also surprised you like Koufax’s peak enough to include him on your ballot, but Gibson’s combination of peak and longevity didn’t crack the list.

    My top ten, based on a mostly arbitrary combination of peak and career WAR:

    1. Clemens
    2. W. Johnson
    3. Grove
    4. Martinez
    5. Young
    6. Seaver
    7. Maddux
    8. Gibson
    9. Alexander
    10. R. Johnson, edging out Spahn based on era

    Reply
    • 24. Jonathan C. Mitchell  |  June 15, 2011 at 1:41 pm

      Wow! Can’t believe it’s been 4 years since I wrote this. My views have changed a bit on what stats I consider and it looks like wWAR might be something you would consider. I probably wouldn’t put much weight into W% or WHIP like I did here and put more weight into other sabermetrics stats and wWAR would be one I would use.

      Reply

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